Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Dolan's Indians dilemma: How he'd avoid conflicts

I called Matt Dolan this week to ask him something I've wondered about for a while -- how he'll avoid dealing with the Cleveland Indians if he's elected county executive.

"If the Indians are involved," Dolan told me, "there will be program in place so I’m not involved in any decision-making." He says he'd ask the county council president to take the lead.

Dolan -- whose father, Larry Dolan, is the Indians' owner -- first addressed the issue this summer. It's a touchy subject, since Dolan's family is donating $1 million to his campaign. His main opponent, Ed FitzGerald, has needled him for the conflict of interest.

The thorniest challenge: The county executive will appoint three out of five board members of the Gateway Economic Development Corp., the Indians' and Cavs' landlord. Dolan wrote to the Ohio Ethics Commission on Sept. 27, asking for an advisory opinion on his plan to recuse himself from that decision. (To read a copy of his letter, click here.)

So I asked Dolan, how can an executive recuse himself from making an appointment? He said he'd pass the decision on to the county council president and a bipartisan advisory panel.

The panel is an idea he proposed in April. It would help the executive choose potential members for dozens of appointed boards and commissions. (See this page of his website.) "They would submit recommendations of who they’ve screened," Dolan said.

"For the Gateway appointment, they would submit it directly to the council president. The council president would make the appointment to council." Then council could approve or reject the person.

Dolan's answer fits what Jennifer Hardin, chief advisory attorney for the Ohio Ethics Commission, told me when I asked how other government executives recuse themselves from appointing someone.

"In most cases, where there are several branches of government involved, another branch may be able to substitute," Hardin said.

What about other decisions the county executive might have to make about the Indians? Say, if the Indians ask for money to renovate Progressive Field?

"If there's a scenario in which the Indians make a request on Gateway," Dolan said, "then the Gateway folks will be instructed to work directly with the council president." No such scenario has come up in the 11 years his family has owned the team, he added.

But the Indians began exploring possible upgrades to Progressive Field in May. The team's lease says Gateway has to pay for any "major" capital repairs costing more than $500,000. But Gateway is not flush with cash, so the team might ask the county and city, which control Gateway, to pay.

"I don't speak for the Indians," says Dolan. "They’re talking about doing renovations. There's no indication at all how Indians intend to finance it. My opponents just assume the county is going to pay for it. That's not accurate."

In 2006, the Cavaliers briefly floated the idea of having taxpayers spend $30 million to renovate Quicken Loans Arena. It fell to Jimmy Dimora, as a county commissioner, to shoot the idea down.

But the mayor of Cleveland would probably take the lead in dealing with any major renovations to the baseball stadium. Under Gateway's structure, the city is the contact for Progressive Field, Dolan notes, while the county is the contact for The Q.

Dolan's letter to the Ethics Commission asks for "a timely response," since "we are drawing constantly closer to the end of campaign season." But Hardin says the ethics commission won't respond until November or December, if Dolan wins.

Dolan's letter asks if recusing himself would be legal. But he says voters shouldn't be concerned that he won't get an answer by Nov. 2. He says he phrased the letter that way because having an advisory opinion backing him up would protect the county in case anyone filed a taxpayer's lawsuit to challenge a Gateway appointment.

"I’m doing the appropriate steps leaders do to prevent any problem in the future," he said.

To read my coverage of the county executive race in Cleveland Magazine, including pieces on the leading candidates, click here.


Unknown said...

I appreciate that you have made an effort to cover this - that's more than most outlets. But you do let Dolan off pretty easy. You don't mention his own personal financial interests in Indians' trusts, that may or may not be the trusts that provide him with significant annual income, according to his ethics filings. And you let him off on the appearance issues as well - do we think the Council President is not going to be influenced by the Executive's status as Indians' heir?

And finally, what about a candidate who has had his political career delivered to him by his family's money? Who is not self-made? Again, kudos for covering this, but it basically ends up justifying Dolan's argument without much analysis.

Erick Trickey said...

James, good point on the trusts.

Dolan's letter to the Ethics Commission says: "I have no direct ownership interest in the team, but I am a secondary beneficiary to a trust that has partial ownership." He could also inherit a share of the team from his father someday.

Roldo Bartimole said...

There is NO way that Matt Dolan could avoid a conflict of interest regarding Gateway and the ownership of the Cleveland Indians by his family.

Anyone who has any sense knows that even if he tried to shift responsibility to another, as the county council president, that person still knows that Mr. Dolan is the county executive. Consequently, the Dolan factor has to be in play.

Further, we hear talk of "renovations" at the ballpark. I don't believe for a moment that what the Dolan family wants are mere renovations. They want to build into the stadium more revenue producing aspects. These will be costly.

Will Matt Dolan tell the County Gateway representatives - a majority of the board -that Gateway MUST require that a significant share of any added revenue producing changes at the baseball stadium must be shared with the public, which subsidized - and continues to subsidize - Gateway with bond payments every January. I don't think so.

Roldo Bartimole